Review by Sean Boelman
Nigerian filmmaker C.J. “Fiery” Obasi’s fantasy-tinged drama Mami Wata debuted at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, where it took home a Special Jury Award for cinematography in the World Cinema Dramatic competition. Now, it is screening at Fantasia as one of the more genre-adjacent offerings of the festival, and it stands out as one of the most beautiful films playing there.
The movie tells the story of two sisters who, after a mysterious stranger washes up on the shore of their tight-knit community, find themselves torn between tradition and modernity. This clash between old and new is nothing particularly innovative — especially for African cinema — but Obasi’s incorporation of mythological and folkloric elements really allows it to stand out.
The film’s pacing is quite intriguing. While some may find the unorthodox structure of the movie to be off-putting, others will find it rather mesmeric. Given that the movie is named after a water deity, water is understandably an important visual motif. In terms of pacing, the narrative feels very much like the tide — coming in and out with strong waves crashing every once in a while.
The biggest drawback of this film is that its anti-colonialist message has been said in a similar way so many times before. However, Obasi’s perspective is still worth hearing because of how effective and subtle he is with his storytelling. The obligatory shocking and violent moments feel earned because of how emotionally invested viewers will be in the story.
What Obasi’s script nails the most is creating a compelling dynamic between the three central women. Although the protagonist is the most nuanced of the characters, it’s amazing to see that neither her mother nor her sister feels stereotyped. And while the external conflict is a tad familiar, the internal clash between them is quite refreshing.
Uzoamaka Aniunoh gives a fantastic performance in the leading role, packing the character with tons of emotion. Rita Edoche is also a standout in the cast in her supporting role. Although Edoche’s turn is a bit typical of the genre — playing the traditionalist leader in a very big flashy way — it’s undeniably effective.
Of course, the most impressive thing about the movie is its striking visuals, beautifully photographed by cinematographer Lílis Soares in black and white. The shots are often stunning, taking advantage of the West African setting wonderfully, as well as creating the dream-like tone to go along with the folkloric nature of the film.
Mami Wata is a gorgeous movie that rides on the strengths of its visuals. Regardless of whether one connects with the narrative, there’s no denying that C.J. “Fiery” Obasi has managed to craft one of the most aesthetically impressive films of the year.
Mami Wata screened at the 2023 Fantasia Film Festival, which runs from July 20 to August 9.